Close this search box.

A Freed African to Free Africa: Alexander Cross and the Liberian Mission

Author: Shawn Daggett
Published: Winter-Spring 2022

MD 13

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

The mission work of the Stone-Campbell Movement and the American Christian Missionary Society began with the sending of Dr. James Barclay to Jerusalem in 1850. Its second candidate for foreign missions, Alexander Cross, was a black slave from Kentucky. His freedom was purchased in order to send him to Monrovia, Liberia, to begin evangelizing the continent of Africa in 1853. This article seeks to create a narrative of his life and work within the contexts of the Southern United States and the newly founded colony of freed slaves in Monrovia.


In 1853, the American Christian Missionary Society sent a freed slave, Alexander Cross, as its first missionary to Africa. Cross was a mild-mannered, kind-hearted, well-loved, and charismatic preacher who responded to the challenge to go to Liberia at great cost to his family and himself. A thriving southern, rural, predominantly white church rallied around Cross, one of their members, to purchase his freedom and raise funds locally, and, with other churches, to pay for his mission. The American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS), funded by these Kentucky churches, excitedly sent a freed African to free Africa from its “benighted lost state.” They aimed to do good at home and begin a movement of the “primitive church” that would spread across the continent of Africa.1 Their motivations were noble, to be sure, but they also proved to be naïve. As a former slave, Cross was more accustomed to American culture than the culture of his African origins. Liberia was also surrounded by indigenous peoples who were hostile to new arrivals. The work lasted only two months and remains a harsh reminder that God’s work in virgin fields nearly always commences at great expense. Cross’s sacrifice, however, would motivate and inspire others for decades.


As a newly founded republic closely associated with America, the choice of Liberia made sense to the ACMS. In the early 1800s, the American Colonization Society (ACS) cooperated with the United States Government and founded the country of Liberia. Issues of slavery and race prompted this bold move. Statesmen such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, some abolitionists and some slaveholders, were either members of the society or publicly supported its efforts to resettle freed African-Americans in Africa. Some local associations, such as the Kentucky Colonization Society, “sought to allay anxieties among slave owners that a move toward emancipation was afoot . . . [The] Society assured the slave owner by stating that its intent was to protect individual rights to property by ‘removing free blacks from association with his slaves, thereby silencing that discontented spirit their connexion does engender.’ ”2 There were, of course, many anti-slavery activists who believed that racial integration was possible and, therefore, opposed the creation of a colony in Africa of former slaves.3 In initial attempts in 1818 to find suitable land for the colony, the society failed to convince local African chiefs to sell any territory. Two years later, however, a contingent of freed slaves and members of the society set out for the West African coast and established a settlement on Scherbo Island constituted under US law. In 1821, naval officer Lieutenant Robert Stockton pressured a local tribal leader to sell a narrow tract of land along the coast to the Society. The surviving Scherbo Islanders joined newly freed settlers moving to this territory and building fortifications to resist the numerous attacks by nearby tribes. In 1824, they named the country Liberia. They named its capital, Monrovia, after President James Monroe, who secured government funding for the colony. The ACS chartered ships to take freed slaves to Liberia. US Navy ships that intercepted slave ships transported rescued slaves to the newly founded Liberia. Residents resisted integration with local peoples and sought to preserve their American culture. Liberia eventually declared independence from the American Colonization Society to assert its territorial sovereignty and establish trade relations with Britain and France. Britain was the first to recognize the new country in 1848. The United States hesitated at first but eventually established diplomatic relations with Liberia in 1862.4

Other Missions to Liberia

The ACMS was not the first mission agency to send a missionary to Liberia. Long before, famous black missionaries such as William Sheppard pioneered work in the Congo. Other denominations expanded their missionary work in Africa by sending Christian freed slaves to colonies such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to David Cornelius, “From the time slaves began accepting Christianity, it was in their hearts to carry the Gospel of Christ not only back to their fatherlands, but also to other parts of the world.”5 Either they had to start their own missionary societies or petition their denominations to send them.

One such missionary to Africa was Lott Carey. After he was freed and became a Christian, his concern for Africa led him to establish the African Baptist Missionary Society in Richmond, Virginia, in 1815. Carey had been greatly influenced by the story of missionary Luther Rice, a graduate of Williams College who, together with Adoniram Judson, studied Scripture onboard a ship bound to India and was immediately baptized upon their arrival. Rice’s work in India was short-lived, but he quickly returned to the States to help organize mission work among the Baptists. He sold his farm for $1500 to help finance his mission. Initially, Carey, along with his partner Colin Teague and their families, sailed for Sierra Leone on January 16, 1821, supported by the American Baptist Missionary Union to work among the Mandingoes and Africans liberated from slave ships. A year later, the team moved to Liberia, where they evangelized among liberated slaves with modest success.6 They had six genuine converts by 1823, but before Carey died in an explosion in 1828, the church had grown to 100 members. Teague built on this work, and the congregation quickly grew to 200.7

Other denominations followed. The Methodists sent Daniel Coker to Sierra Leone in 1821. In the same year, Samuel Crowther was captured in a slave raid, liberated on the high seas, and taken to Sierra Leone, where he became a member of the Anglican church. He later was appointed bishop and returned to Nigeria to do mission work in his homeland along the Niger River. The Presbyterians and the ACS cooperated in sending James M. Priest to Liberia in 1843. In some locations, black missionaries greatly outnumbered their white counterparts. By 1855, all the Methodist missionaries in Liberia were black, reflecting the policy that “if properly educated . . . there must be many [blacks] who make efficient missionaries to the lands of their forefathers.” By the mid-nineteenth century, almost all Presbyterian and Baptist missionaries in Liberia were also black. As the American Episcopal Bishop Payne admitted, “Africa must be evangelized chiefly by her own children.”8

Sending agencies preferred sending freed slaves to Liberia because it had become a black republic and because they naïvely believed that black Americans would be better suited to reach Africans by virtue of the color of their skin and their ancestral origin. The home church imagined that Africans who heard the gospel for the first time would think, “How joyful the thought that ‘one of our own’ has returned to bring us good news.” Other motivations were not so noble. In 1882, the ACS stated, “[a] church with a pastor and people of the same race is worth a hundred holding on to some foreign missionary as its only source of life, and ready to sink into . . . heathenism if disease strikes the exile down.”9 This statement surfaces the senders’ belief that black people were either more resilient to malaria and tropical diseases than white missionaries in Africa or that somehow white lives needed to be spared and black lives spent for the endeavor. Sherman, a white missionary who returned from Liberia, wrote, “There is fearful mortality among African missionaries. If the white man cannot live [there] to evangelize [Africans] . . . educated colored men . . . must . . . be the only instrumentality employed in the conversion of Africans.”10 On the contrary, anecdotal evidence indicates that freed black slaves were just as susceptible to disease as white missionaries. Women often outlived their husbands, who succumbed to malaria after a short period of work.11

From the perspective of the missionaries who were once slaves, they were escaping a world of social injustice and commonplace brutality for an opportunity to acquire some degree of status. They were often still under white mission boards, but they became administrators and exercised control of schools and churches. Lott Carey, for example, felt that “Africa was the best place for him and his family (and any black persons who did not want the hue of their skin to hinder their advancement in the society in which they lived).”12 When people asked him why he would give up the comforts of America for Africa, Carey replied, “I am an African . . . I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion, and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.”13 According to Sylvia Jacobs, “Many African Americans accepted the contemporary theory of ‘providential design,’ the idea that blacks had been brought to America for slavery so that they might be Christianized and ‘civilized’ to return to Africa with the light of ‘civilization.’ ”14 Christian freed slaves more likely believed that God’s “providential design” was to work good from a great evil. As Janet Cornelius writes:

Black missionaries shared whites’ belief in the superiority of Christianity and some aspects of Western culture, including literacy. Like whites, they expected that a period in history would arrive when Protestantism and Western civilization would be established throughout the world. They rejected American racism and slavery, but they believed that God’s plans were always directed toward good; if God had allowed Europeans to enslave Africans and seize them from their homelands to live in sorrow, he must have planned for blacks to acquire Christianity and literacy for the benefit of Africans. If so, who better to extend these blessings to Africa than black missionaries, since, ‘in the eyes of many blacks, they, not whites, were the most true and most loyal adherents to the religion of Jesus.’15

In the case of the black missionary, romantic idealism was met by harsh realities. They tended to work among African American immigrants rather than indigenous people. When they did work among the local people, their offers of the Gospel were often met with suspicion and hostility. Tribesmen felt their land had been forcefully taken from them and saw the missionaries as intruders. African American missionaries, on the other hand, felt superior to Africans and rejected their affinity with black Africa. Coming out of their quest for acceptance within American culture, they were prone to reject their origins and escape their African blackness. As Harold Isaacs wrote, “There is a deep pool of mutual prejudice between Africans and American Negroes and it is easily stirred up. . . . Thus, Negroes usually saw Africans only as benighted and backward creatures who had never been able to come out of the jungle.”16 Only those black missionaries who lived long enough to identify with the people and humbly live among them succeeded in planting and expanding churches in Africa. Some like Carey, Coker, Priest, and Sheppard thrived where white men failed.

The ACMS Mission to Liberia

Early on, the American Christian Missionary Society planned to reach Africa by sending an African American as its missionary.17 At the time of its formation, anti-slavery sentiment was mounting rapidly. In 1850, the ACMS sent a former slave owner to Jerusalem, and it was time for its officers to rally interest to send a freed slave to his “homeland” and “his own people.” The endeavor was well-intended but short-sighted and ill-informed. As one born and raised on American soil and descended from another country of the vast African continent, a missionary’s skin color did little to prepare him for the climate, culture, threats to health, and challenges in communication that the enterprise entailed. This symbolic action, however, was not coincidental. It represented the tidal wave of changes, emotions, and political jockeying that would culminate in the American Civil War, ripping the nation, churches, and families apart. Writings later penned by the hand of Alexander Campbell, president of the ACMS, reflect the thinking of its members at the time:

That we should have an African mission as well as an Asiatic mission—a station in Liberia as well as in Jerusalem—missionaries peregrinating accessible portions of the land of Ham as well as of the land of Shem, appears to me alike a duty, a privilege, and an honor. We are abundant in means, and wanting, if wanting at all, only in will, in purpose, or in liberality.18

I have never regretted that Jerusalem was selected as our first foreign missionary field, and am glad that Liberia, in Africa, has become our second. Yet I was not, nor am I yet, sanguine that either field will be signalized with an immediate harvest, or a large ingathering to the fold of Christ. But we, as a people, owe much to Jerusalem; and, as a nation, a mighty debt to Africa. We ought to make a cheerful and a liberal tender of our best endeavors to Asia and Africa—to Liberia and Jerusalem, as their best centers of radiation, because their attractions are paramount to all others, beyond our own beloved America.19

D. S. Burnet was at this time the corresponding secretary for the society and exerted due influence in its daily operations. His uncle was a judge in Cincinnati and was part of a project to send freed slaves to a new colony called “Ohio in Africa.” Together with a group of fellow citizens, “he aimed to develop a portion of northern Liberia as a special African attraction to Ohio free Negro emigrants.”20 News sources suggested that it could strike a mortal blow to the slave trade if easy provision could be made for the resettlement of freed individuals. Judge Burnet was busily raising funds for this scheme. This sparked the idea in the mind of D. S. Burnet to make appeals in The Christian Age, calling upon the churches to send a missionary to Africa. In Christian County, Kentucky, a church member responded to Burnet, saying he knew just the right man for the job. He had overheard a man addressing his fellow slaves on temperance and was impressed with his intellect and ability to communicate effectively. Burnet corresponded with the church in that county and recommended that the suggested man’s freedom be purchased as soon as possible.21 That man was Alexander Cross.22


Alexander Cross was born March 10, 1810, and raised in Trenton, Kentucky (in Todd County, southeast of Hopkinsville, about halfway to Clarksville, Tennessee). According to census records, there were about 5,000 slaves in the county in 1840. The local economy was more dependent on slavery in the southern part of the county because the land there was more adapted to farming. There were fewer farmers in neighboring northern Christian County; therefore, there was less support for and use of slavery.23 In contrast with other slaves in his county, Alexander never worked in the fields. He was brought up in the master’s house, learned to read and write, and was assigned to the personal service of the family.24 Alexander enjoyed the full trust and esteem of his master, Thomas Cross, a wealthy man who had farms in Todd County and lived in Clarksville, TN. Thomas Cross was not particularly religious and was not formally a member of any church. He was, however, described as “a moral and honorable gentleman” and granted some degree of autonomy to Alexander.25 He allowed Alexander to open a barbershop in Hopkinsville and work extra shifts in a local hotel restaurant. According to the custom of the times, Alexander was required to forward a certain percentage of his earnings to his master, but he was able to save the rest to purchase a modest home in Hopkinsville. Little is known about Alexander’s physical appearance except that he was five foot, eight and three-quarters inches tall and had a scar across his forehead.26


When the Hopkinsville church arranged for his freedom, Alexander was 43 years old. He was married to his second wife, Martha Ann, who was 36 years old. She too had been previously married and had already obtained her freedom when they married. Together they had one son, James, who was seven years old at the time of Alexander’s emancipation. They faithfully attended the Ninth Street Christian Church in Hopkinsville, where Alexander impressed the congregation with his preaching skills.27 Alexander stood tall and straight with a commanding refined appearance. He was a gifted speaker and a fascinating conversationalist. Alexander persuasively swayed crowds with his powerful preaching and enjoyed the respect of his peers through his genuine faith, industrious work ethic, kind demeanor, pious devotion, and attentive aptitude for learning. He memorized and effortlessly quoted large portions of Scripture. F. M. Rains wrote, “Those who knew him intimately, speak of him as being kind, and as gentle as a woman. He had picked up a fairly good education, and his association with the best cultivated white society, as a servant, gave him a degree of culture very much above these of his station in life.”28

At the urging of D. S. Burnet of the ACMS, the Hopkinsville church conferred with Alexander Cross about serving as a missionary to Liberia. Several slave owners attended the church, and their actions to free Alexander were not motivated by anti-slavery politics. Alexander’s character and oratory ability had impressed them, and the church’s leaders were in tune with the aims of the ACMS to send out missionaries.29 Alexander was “both willing and anxious to go could his freedom be obtained.”30 As a barber, Alexander’s worth was set at $1,500, but when his owner came to understand the reason for the purchase, he agreed to sell for just $530. Enos Campbell, minister of the Ninth Street Christian Church in Hopkinsville, led the efforts to raise the amount needed. According to the church records, other congregations in the area, such as Roaring Springs and Lafayette, contributed generously to the effort. Since Kentucky law forbade the manumission of a slave, the bill of sale was made out to Robertson T. Torian, a wealthy member and benefactor in the church. He contributed a large amount to the purchase. On October 5, 1853, Torian went to the Christian County courthouse and finalized the sale. The court stipulated that Thomas Cross would be paid in full by January 1, 1854, and that the church would furnish the money necessary to get Alexander to Liberia. Although the ACMS is not named in the agreement, it provided his first year’s salary and passage to Liberia.31

During the months prior to his departure, Cross preached for the Ninth Street church and sought to prepare himself for the missionary task. The church purchased a number of books and educational materials for him to sharpen his abilities and mind. Enos Campbell, then also the principal of the South Kentucky Female Institute, offered intensive instruction, and Cross worked so industriously and studied so assiduously that the church was quite satisfied that “he was well qualified for his duties and responsibilities.”32


The Ninth Street church held an ordination service for Alexander on October 2, 1853. The church was packed with white members on the lower level and 200 plus African Americans who were segregated in the gallery. He delivered a powerful sermon that members remembered for years to come. The elders (Colonel George Poindexter, Dr. William V. Barnard, and Dr. D. J. Gish) then gathered around him and appointed him to the work in Africa. Barnard delivered a new Bible and an eloquent charge to Alexander, who was still on bended knee. He emphasized that the Bible “had given the white people liberty and civilization and would do as much for the people of Africa, if faithfully preached and willingly obeyed.”33 The elders then laid their hands on Alexander in the name of the Ninth Street church and the other churches that had contributed to the cause. Poindexter offered the ordination prayer with “earnestness, appropriateness, and tenderness.”34 In the midst of a dark time of injustice and enslavery, these elders were becoming men of vision and courage—up to this point, no similar service nor endeavor had been attempted by a small group of Christian Churches in the United States. Rightly did Rains comment, “They were intelligent, aggressive, kind and hopeful. They were men of broad information, true culture, and deep piety.” The elders then presented the Cross family with the following letter of endorsement to take with them.

To the faithful in Christ Jesus residing in the United States and elsewhere: This is to certify that on the second day of October, 1853 being the first Lord’s day in the month, in the town of Hopkinsville, Christian County, Ky., Bro. Alexander Cross (a free man of color), was set apart to the work of the ministry by prayer and fasting, and the imposition of hands, the Church of Christ at Concord, Harmony Grove, Cadiz Liberty, Christian Chapel, and Energesia, participating with the Church of Christ of this place in the ordination; and the same was directed to be certified in behalf of all the churches represented. Signed by the above Elders.35

On the Sunday afternoon before their set departure from Kentucky, the church gave Alexander and his family a farewell reception in their honor. Circuit court was in session that week, and the city’s population was bulging with out-of-town lawyers, judges, and important guests. Yet even before such an intimidating audience, Cross delivered a beautifully worded farewell address to the large crowd. He declared that the mission to Liberia was two-fold; “to carry the people of that colony apostolic Christianity, and aid in establishing there a civil government based on the principles of American institutions.”36 Mrs. Gish, an elder’s wife, organized a collection of clothing and money among the ladies of the Hopkinsville church and packed them in Martha Ann Cross’s trunk.

At the annual ACMS meeting in October 1853, Burnet recounted how the whole story had unfolded, excitedly announcing that the Kentucky State Convention of the society had adopted the Liberian mission at their Harrodsburg meeting one month earlier. They sent Alexander and his family to the ACMS with enough funds for the journey and one year of support. Burnet introduced Alexander Cross to the assembly, who then handed over all the donations into the hands of the ACMS officers. Burnet’s speech was certainly marked by the language and beliefs typical of his time. He said:

I have the pleasure to present him to your body and to invoke your prayers in behalf of his labors. . . . Having heard a discourse from the lips of this recently emancipated son of Ham, I can assure the brotherhood that Providence has given us a man wrapped up in a dark skin, truly, but a man who seems destined to large usefulness. He has good logic and oratory and if he keeps humble and industrious in the acquirement of knowledge and holiness, he will greatly enlarge his capacity for doing good. While on the sea-board, I negotiated the passage of himself, wife, and child, in the vessel of the Colonization Society, that is to take out emigrants about the 1st of November. All this is more than anyone could have divined at our last session. Perhaps more than any of us hoped to realize in so short a period. Blessed be the name of the Lord.37

According to the passenger list, Alexander, Martha, and their son James were purchased by friends in Christian County, Kentucky, and were the last three to board the Banshee, a ship commandeered by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of transporting freed slaves. They sailed for Liberia from Baltimore on November 9, 1853, and departed again from Norfolk on November 11, 1853.38 There were 274 other passengers aboard, and those that landed brought the total of emigrants sent to Liberia by the ACS to 8,041. Aboard the ship were large extended families of ten or more persons ranging from newborns to 76-year-olds and smaller families, such as Alexander’s of just three. Of the passengers coming from fifteen states, 88 were born free, 163 were emancipated, and ten were purchased. The voyage was not pleasant, as overcrowding exacerbated difficult weather conditions.39 The ship encountered three severe storms, but when it was within 400 miles of its destination, it encountered a week of a calm sea without movement.40 The Banshee set into port in Monrovia, Liberia, on December 19.41 Three emigrants died in the passage; two infants and one fifty-six-year-old man. Many children onboard also acquired whooping cough on the journey.42


Few details are available concerning the events of Alexander’s final days in Liberia. Published letters from the time provide conflicting glimpses of the experience of arriving, settling in, and experiencing freedom for the first time. August Williams, who arrived in Liberia within a day of the Cross family, wrote: “In the morning we took a view of the cape from our anchorage. It was a beautiful sight to look for the first time in our life on the sunny hills and verdant plains of the only land in which we can feel ourselves truly free. . . . I soon saw that the people here live in a style of ease, comfort and independence, at which they can never expect to arrive in the States.”43

Upon their arrival, emigrant families were given temporary housing in Monrovia until they had suffered and recovered from their first case or two of “African” or “acclimating” fever. These blanket terms covered a number of potential illnesses, including malaria. As noted by the doctors who cared for the emigrants, fever was much more prevalent near swamps or during the dry season, when people tended to drink from dirty water sources.44 The doctors and those commissioned to orient new arrivals stressed the importance of proper acclimation, rest, and recovery before attempting to do any reading, writing, or strenuous work. Wives and children typically remained in Monrovia while the men, against the advice given to them, traveled up the Junk or St. Paul rivers between bouts of fever. Food was plentiful but expensive in the city, as much of it was imported from Britain, France, and the United States. The largest portion of the emigrants who arrived on the Banshee with the Cross family had traveled by canoe up the St. Paul River fifteen miles and had decided to make their home in a new settlement named Clay-Ashland, nicknamed “New Kentucky.” The ACS society provided them with up to six months of subsidies to get started. However, unless they were entrepreneurs with new businesses to establish, the emigrants needed to quickly clear land and plant seed to have a harvest.45 According to reports of a lumberman, much of the land along the St. Paul had already been cleared and settled.46

The reports collected and printed in the African Repository disseminated by the ACS aimed to legitimize the colonization efforts by raising more funds and recruiting more freed slaves to live in Liberia. Doctors’ reports stressed that, while some emigrants inevitably died, the number who died within a short time was relatively small:

In a large company of immigrants, composed, as was that by the Banshee, of persons of almost all ages, from tender infancy to more than four score years, and of various constitutional predispositions, we could not expect that all would pass safely through the process of acclimation; but we believe that the risk of death from the acclimating process, in persons of tolerably good constitutions, is not very great—probably not equal to three per cent—if immigrants could be prevailed on to exercise the necessary prudence in trying to preserve their health. But frequently disregard the advice and direction of the physicians; and presume too much on their own judgment, or on their ability to endure as much fatigue and exposure as acclimated citizens.47

Some collections of personal letters portray a much bleaker picture. The perspectives of the reports were shaped greatly by the financial and educational resources available to those who emigrated. Freemen who already possessed investment money and had established businesses were in the minority but fared well. Those widowed by husbands who fell victim to tropical diseases were often destitute and suffered greatly.

Rachel Eddington, a 40-year-old woman and freed slave from Kentucky who traveled with her children to Liberia to join her husband found conditions so difficult in Liberia that she would have preferred to return to Kentucky as a slave than to remain in Liberia. She wrote to her former owners from the same “New Kentucky” where Alexander was attempting to build a home for his family. Her letters reveal the extreme difficulties faced by newly-arrived freed settlers who sought to provide for their families in such a hostile place where the soil was shallow and disease was “an endemic threat.”48

In August of 1857, in her first piece of correspondence with her former owner, Eddington, she wrote about her fight to survive. She and her sons had little to eat, and what they did have, they had to beg for. The allowance she was given upon her arrival was quickly spent, and she lacked the farm implements necessary to grow crops of her own. She wrote:

This is not the country that was recommended to me. . . . When I landed I had but three dollars and some cents, and now I have spent all that for the nourishment of the children. I have nothing left. . . . We [stayed] in the receptacle 11 days, and all the time we were there our children were crying for bread; after we left we did not get any provision for 2 weeks and had to beg everything we eat. . . . I have to pay for my washing and live in a house where we are compelled to pay rent. Some assistance to build a house is greatly needed 2 acres, 2 hoes, and 1 spade was all the children get to farm with, no cutlass, no grass scythe, no mattock. I did not even get a water bucket.49

In a subsequent letter, she lamented that her boys could not find work because the “natives” took all the job opportunities. The missionaries hired as many as ten to twenty “natives” but did not keep any American boys.50 Eventually, two of her sons died, one of heatstroke and the other of an accident while working on a ship along the coast.

The situation for Alexander, Martha Ann, and James was, in part, quite different. They enjoyed the benefit of guaranteed funding from the ACMS. According to Ephraim Smith, even though Alexander had the funds to hire others to do the work for him, he sought to live more economically and took on the laborious work for himself.51

Untimely Death

In the newly settled colony, former slaves lined up between two extremes: on the one hand were the industrious, hard-working, intelligent, and educated people. On the other hand were those given to reckless laziness and drunkenness. Cross was most assuredly among the harder working. He had acquired a severe case of the African fever yet quickly returned to the task of traveling up the St. Paul River to clear the land for planting and to build a house to live in. On one of these fifteen-mile treks, Cross “pulled a canoe” to New Kentucky. He had a relapse of fever, grew deathly ill, and died on February 14, 1854. By February 21, only two months after arriving in Liberia, Cross and his son James were listed among the 28 Banshee passengers who had died.52 James probably died of malaria or whooping cough, which he could have contracted on the crowded voyage.

News of his death spread quickly and brought heartache and sorrow to the churches of Christian County that loved him so dearly and had given so sacrificially toward the Liberian mission. Upon reading of his death in the Christian Age, the Hopkinsville church convened a meeting and composed the following tribute:

Having learned from the Christian Age the melancholy tidings that our esteemed brother, Alexander Cross, late a member of this church, departed this life at Monrovia in the Republic of Liberia, Africa, on the 14th day of last February, where he had gone as a missionary to engage in the great and glorious work of preaching the gospel; and having long known him as an humble, pious, and exemplary Christian, and, for his opportunity, a highly gifted brother, and fondly hoping that under the blessings of God his labors as a missionary would result in much happiness to his race, the advancement of pure and undefiled religion in down-trodden Africa, and to the ultimate salvation of many of her benighted children, and whilst we humbly bow to the mysterious dispensation of “God who giveth and taketh away,” and while we trust to his grace and pray that he may overrule all for good, we feel that it is due to the memory of the deceased, that while we drop the tears of sorrow that naturally flow on account of his death, we should ever hold sacred the fond recollection of our brother, Alexander Cross, who has been removed, dear to us from a knowledge of his pious walk and conversation during the whole term of his membership in the church, and rendered doubly dear to us all by that generous devotion to the cause of his Master, which caused him to forget his future ease and comfort, to abandon the society of a large circle of friends by whom he was universally beloved, and which urged him to migrate to the land of his forefathers, where he met his untimely fate, to preach to his benighted brethren the unsearchable riches of Christ.

Resolved, That we deeply sympathize with his wife who is doubly bereaved in the loss of a husband and son in a land of strangers, and that we see that all necessary relief is afforded her through the proper channels.

Resolved, That notwithstanding the discouragements upon our efforts at a mission in Liberia, we have unabated confidence in its being one of the best fields for missionary labors, and that the Lord has a great work to do there, and that we desire to be co-laborers with him by sustaining any one whom he may raise up and send to that work.

Resolved, That the foregoing preamble and resolution be spread upon our church record and copy be transmitted to the wife of our deceased brother, Alexander Cross, and also a copy to the Christian Age and Millennial Harbinger for publication.

E. Campbell,
Geo. Poindexter,
D. J. Gish,
W. V. Barnard,
B. S. Campbell,
Thos. H. Baker, Clerk53

In the short time he was in Liberia, Cross made a significant impression on its residents. Before making the return trip to America, the captain of the Banshee took note of Cross’s good character and “bore a most favorable report of our lamented brother and his truly Christian wife.”54 The Cross family lost no time in sharing the gospel and connecting with the other settlers in Liberia. A half-century later, the ACMS sent its second missionary to Liberia, Jacob Kenoly. When others informed him that another Disciples missionary had preceded him in Liberia, Kenoly found people who still admired and remembered the Cross family.55

At the annual October meeting of the ACMS in 1854, Walter Scott eulogized the short-lived missionary life of Alexander Cross. In poetic and eloquent words, he sought to reframe this tragedy as a motivator to great conviction and unfettered sacrifice. As he stood before the society’s delegates from across the US, he declared:

Perhaps a providence of a peculiar and somewhat astounding character, like the death of Cross, was necessary to awaken our brethren more generally to the real state of heathendom, and Africa in particular. Let us, therefore, regard our brother’s death as a blessing in disguise, a heavenly note of attention designed to put us all in possession of a more enlightened view of our Foreign Mission, and of our duty in regard to them. Bro. Cross, in the state and rank of a man—a man of God. Fired with the love of souls, and freed, his godly and lofty spirit impelled him, he being invited, to his ancient fatherland—the flowery Africa. Preparatory to embodying his high designs in action, he visited us just one year ago, and in this very house [corner of Eighty and Walnut Streets, Cincinnati, Ohio] received from us all, amid tears, and sighs, and blessing innumerable, the “right hand of fellowship that he should go to the heathen.” He went, he sickened, he died. Eager to create for himself and family a little home, and to erect the base of operation for the war which he had gone to wage with savagism and sin, he overtaxed his powers in that hot but delightful land, and there fell a victim to his own too ardent zeal for the business he had undertaken on behalf of Christ and his brethren. With his dear son by his side, he now sleeps his last sleep. The widow and child mourn over his grave; but he hears them not, he heeds them not. The sea breeze at eventide steals upon the air and breathes over his lowly bed, but he tastes not of its refreshing coolness. The tropical sun sheds a flood of glory around his head, but he to glory is forever dead; while the exuberant soil pours down upon his tomb an equatorial affluence of flowers, their fragrance delights him no more. Far, far away in Africa, our brother lies dead and silent in the grave. But, Bro. Cross, the will shall be taken for the deed, and thou hast the honor of being the first of our jewels hid up of the Lord in Africa, to awaken the sympathies of a great people in behalf of the richest continent on the globe.56

At a distance of more than 150 years, determining whether Alexander’s death could have been avoided is nigh impossible. Ephraim A. Smith, who had made a self-funded survey trip to Liberia and offered without pay his consulting wisdom and knowledge to the ACMS, faulted Cross for his own death. Smith placed the blame squarely on Cross because he had failed to heed Smith’s advice to rest, wait, and not exert himself too much until fully acclimated. On May 12, 1854, he wrote from Philadelphia concerning Alexander’s death:

Bro. Campbell—It is a painful task which falls to my lot. I have to inform you of the death of our worthy missionary to Liberia, Alexander Cross. He died at Monrovia in February last. The information came to the Secretary in Washington from his physician. I saw the letter as I was returning from Virginia to Baltimore. I furnish you with a copy of his report; “Alexander Cross, aged forty-five, from Kentucky. This man imprudently pulled up to ‘Kentucky’—about twelve or fourteen miles—a large canoe, with another man, on a hot day; was immediately taken sick and brought down ill.” His little son, James M. Cross, aged seven years, appears on the list of those who have died. A few more died on the voyage, and in two months after arriving.

Bro. Cross truly was imprudent. I furnished him with a good, new, umbrella, and charged him not to exert or expose himself until he had become acclimated. He had plenty of means to engage men. I know he wished to be economical. But he has lost his life, and we have been deprived of our missionary to that benighted land. We ought to send a young man next. I have learned much which I trust can be turned to good account in the future. The Captain and Steward of the Banshee, whom I have seen since their return, but before we had heard of these deaths—bore a most favorable report of our lamented brother and his truly Christian wife. I sincerely sympathize with our sister in her sore affliction in a strange land. I trust she will not be forgotten by us. I fear many brethren will become dispirited in this good work. They should not. The Lord may design to try our faith. Let us pray to him more. The work is his. He will carry it on through us if we are faithful. The Lord be with us all in every good work! The reports for Liberia, in the main, are favorable. I learn that the colored delegate and agent for Indiana, has returned and made a very favorable report, urging all who can to go to that goodly land.57

The American Colonization Society and the American Christian Missionary Society shared the difficult challenge of reporting honestly the many deaths and setbacks encountered in their endeavors without leaving the impression to potential donors that their projects were poorly planned or ill-fated. Smith’s announcement paralleled similar ones in the American Colonization Society’s official paper, The African Repository, in which doctors and officials stated that the majority of untimely deaths experienced in Liberia were due to the “imprudence” of its new residents.

In reality, however, Cross knew the ever-present threat of disease and death. He selflessly sought to secure adequate living conditions for his family’s survival and to mitigate those risks. He was also constantly aware of the charge entrusted to him and the pressure of the expectation to preach the gospel and bring souls to Christ. Churches at home were anxiously waiting for news of conversions, new churches, and a growing mission. Without success, American churches would be more reluctant to give generously for the year’s support. Therefore, he acted with great urgency to establish a community and a church in New Kentucky as quickly as possible.

Many who read this story wonder about what happened to Cross’s wife after his death. According to letters to the Hopkinsville church, Martha Ann remarried another mission worker and stayed in Liberia.58 For a widowed missionary wife to remarry another missionary was quite common. Some wives, no doubt, traveled to foreign countries with their husbands out of duty, without much missionary zeal of their own. Many missionary wives, however, shared their husband’s desire to preach the gospel overseas. Such was the case with Sarah Boardman, for example. She and her husband, George, sailed to Burma in 1824. She remained in the country when her husband died in 1831 and became the second wife to Adoniram Judson three years later. Her translations of evangelistic material and the New Testament is evidence that she sought to partner with her husbands in their mission work. Both the Hopkinsville church and the ACMS resolved to communicate with and take care of Martha Ann Cross. She fared better economically than most of the population, which had to fight just to survive. While others were given six months of subsistence, she received one year.


Alexander Cross was the second missionary to be sent out by the American Christian Missionary Society, but he was the first to be sent to Africa. He was the first slave to obtain his freedom to become a Disciples missionary, and he was the first to spend that freedom and risk his life to do so. At the distance of time, his legacy is difficult to evaluate. He joined the ranks of hundreds of former slaves who preceded their white counterparts in attempting to spread the gospel. His story is but one of the many tragedies of the colonization movement in which there is recent renewed interest.

To my knowledge, no monuments or personal writings remain to remember his sacrificial and courageous service. After the disappointing results of the Jerusalem and Liberia missions, the fledgling ACMS desperately needed a success story to rally missionary giving and attract recruits. The society would have to wait another decade for Julius O. Beardslee and the Jamaican Mission to see happy results. The history of Christian missions, however, has repeatedly demonstrated that a missionary giving his or her life is a powerful inspiration for others to answer the call to foreign fields. Alexander Cross’s story was widely read and known by members of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Its inspirational effect was still felt 50 years later when Jacob Kenoly began work in Monrovia.59 Even to this day, Churches of Christ missionaries who enter the African field know that they follow in the long line of faithful heroes that began with Alexander Cross.60

His grave somewhere in Liberia lies unmarked, yet it “is a consecrated ground, the stone that marks his resting place the first mile-stone to mark our progress as a missionary people.”61 Elizabeth Ross, in writing a tribute to Jacob Kenoly, who followed in Cross’s steps some 50 years later, wrote: “Another life for Africa! ‘Tis the way of the Cross! It takes life to save life. Young Golaz and his wife died within one year of going to Africa. To the friend who wiped the death-damp from his brow he said: ‘Tell the Church at home not to be discouraged if the first workers fall in the field. Our graves will mark the way where others will march past in great strides.’ ”62

Shawn Daggett holds his ThD in Missions and New Testament from Boston University and teaches in the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding University. He and his wife, Donna Shackelford Daggett, together with their six children, served in missions and ministry in Memphis, TN; Bergamo, Italy; Natick, MA; Zambia; and Searcy, AR. His goal is to inspire and challenge students to participate in God’s mission of salvation to the whole world and to recruit, prepare, and equip disciples who will effectively make others disciples of Christ.

1 Ephraim A. Smith, “Death of Our Missionary to Liberia,” Millennial Harbinger 4, no. 6 (June 1854), 358.

2 First Annual Report of the Kentucky Colonization Society, Auxilary to the American Colonization Society for the Colonizing Free People of Colour in the United States (Frankfort: J. H. Huleman, 1830), 13, quoted in Jack Glazier, Been Coming through Some Hard Times: Race, History and Memory in Western Kentucky (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012), 61.

3 Ibid.

4 United States of America Department of State Office of the Historian, “Founding of Liberia, 1847,”

5 David Cornelius, “A Brief Historical Survey of African-American Involvement in International Missions,” in African-American Experience in World Mission: A Call Beyond, vol. 1, ed. Vaughn J. Walston and Robert J. Stevens (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2009), 48.

6 See Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 161.

7 See William Seraile, “Black American Missionaries in Africa: 1821–1925,” in African-American Experience in World Mission, 25.

8 Ibid., 27.

9 Ibid., 28.

10 Ibid., 27.

11 Ibid., 26.

12 Cornelius, 48–50.

13 Seraile, 25.

14 Sylvia M. Jacobs, “African Missions and the African-American Christian Churches,” in African-American Experience in World Mission, 30.

15 Cornelius, 161.

16 Harold Isaacs, “Back to Africa,” in African-American Experience in World Mission, 94.

17 See D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Bowers, eds., The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013), 34: “The idea of sending a missionary to Liberia had been circulating among Stone-Campbell leaders since the late 1840s.”

18 Alexander Campbell, “An Address,” Millennial Harbinger 3, no. 11 (November 1853), 614.

19 Alexander Campbell, “Response to Dr. Barclay,” Millennial Harbinger 4, no. 2 (February 1854), 91.

20 Noel L. Keith, The Story of D. S. Burnet: Undeserved Obscurity (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 149.

21 See Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order, vol. 1 (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1949), 220; Edith Eberle Yocum, They Went to Africa: Biographies of Missionaries of the Disciples of Christ (Indianapolis: United Christian Missionary Society Missionary Education Department, 1945), 5.

22 For a treatment of how Alexander Cross fits into the larger story of African Americans in the Restoration Movement, see Edward J. Robinson, Hard Fighting Soldiers: A History of African American Churches of Christ (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2019), 165–66.

23 See Jennifer P. Brown, “Church Paid for Slave’s Freedom,” Kentucky New Era, February 3, 2001, 1,

24 See F. M. Rains, “Our First Foreign Missionary to the Heathen,” Christian Standard 33, no. 27 (July 3, 1897), 851; Glazier, 61.

25 Rains, 851.

26 Brown, 1.

27 Glazier, 61.

28 Rains, 851.

29 Brown, 1.

30 Yocum, 5.

31 Glazier, 62.

32 Yocum, 5.

33 Rains, 851.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 See “List of Emigrants,” The African Repository 30, no. 1 (January 1854), 19–24.

39 See William C. Burke, “Letter from Wm. C. Burke to Rev. R. R. Gurley,” The African Repository 30, no. 5 (May 1854), 151–52.

40 The bad weather is reported by a photographer and business man who traveled on the Isla de Cuba, which departed from the States and arrived just one day ahead of the Banshee. Augustus Washington, “Letter from Augustus Washington,” The African Repository 30, no. 5 (June 1854), 186.

41 See “Latest from Liberia,” The African Repository 30, no. 3 (March 1854), 78.

42 See “Letters from Liberia,” The African Repository 30, no. 5 (May 1854), 133–34.

43 Washington, 186.

44 See J. J. Robert, “Letters from Liberia, Government House, September 15, 1853,” The African Repository 30, no. 5 (May 1854), 152.

45 See Burke, 151; Bell I. Wiley, Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia, 1833–1869 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980), 2.

46 See Samuel Williams, “Letter to Rev. J. Morris Pease,” The African Repository 30, no. 5 (June 1854), 174.

47 “Latest from Liberia,” The African Repository 30, no. 6 (June 1854), 189.

48 Glazier, 65.

49 Lenora Lindley and Edith L. Bennett, Spiderwebs, a Steamer-Trunk and Slavery, 1826–1886 (Owenboro: Kentucky Typewriter Corporation, 1964), 13, quoted in Glazier, 65.

50 Ibid., 14–15, quoted in Glazier, 66.

51 Ephraim A. Smith, “Death of Our Missionary to Liberia,” Millennial Harbinger 4, no. 6 (June 1854), 358.

52 “Latest from Liberia,” June 1854, 188.

53 Rains, 852.

54 Smith, “Death of Our Missionary,” 358.

55 Colin Charles Smith, The Life and Work of Jacob Kenoly (Cincinnati: Methodist Book Concern, 1912), 28.

56 Rains, 852.

57 Smith, “Death of Our Missionary,” 358.

58 See Brown, 1; Rains, 852.

59 Smith, The Life and Work of Jacob Kenoly, 28.

60 See Mark Berryman, “A Survey of Work in West Africa,” in 100 Years of African Missions, ed. Stanley E. Granberg (Abilene: ACU Press, 2001), 89.

61 Lynn D. Yocum, 1979 Missionary Pictorial Supplement (Nashville: World Vision, 1979), 5.

62 Smith, The Life and Work of Jacob Kenoly, 28–29.

Close this search box.